Nick Cohen

Isil stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Does David Cameron not realise this?

Isil stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Does David Cameron not realise this?
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It is very easy to make David Cameron and the Scottish National Party look ridiculous. But as every soldier and journalist knows, just because a target is easy doesn't mean you shouldn't hit it. The attempt by supposedly respectable politicians to use trickery and outright lies to rebrand Islamic State as a state that has nothing to with Islam is too good to miss.

David Cameron kicked off this week when he shouted at the BBC for calling Islamic State 'Islamic State'. Yesterday at Prime Minister's Questions he was at it again. Islamic State should not be called 'Islamic State' but 'Isil'.

Meanwhile the SNP rounded up Boris Johnson, Caroline Lucas and Zac Goldsmith to stand alongside its own ample collection of charlatans and wishful thinkers. Together they insisted that not only should we not call Islamic State 'Islamic State' we should not call it 'Isis' or 'Isil' either. The preferred term should be – nay, must be – 'Daesh' because:

The use of terminology such as Islamic State, Isil and Isis risks taking away from the fact that this is a murderous terrorist organisation, and nothing more. This group is not a recognised state, is categorically not Islamic, and has no support from our Muslim community, who all believe that actions like last week's senseless shootings in Tunisia are an outrage.

The BBC looks like it is buckling under political pressure, as it so often does. Instead of telling Cameron that his behaviour demeaned his office, the Today programme was referring to the 'so-called Islamic State' this morning. If this carries on, the BBC will soon be reporting on 'the supposedly Democratic Republic of Congo' and 'the alleged Netherlands'. Sycophantic MPs, meanwhile, are using 'Daesh' in the Commons. No one, not Cameron, the SNP, Lucas, Johnson or Goldsmith admitted that they were asking the public to engage in fruitless lying. Not one could acknowledge that their word games made distinctions without differences.

'Isis' is an acronym of Islamic State in Syria. 'Isil' – an acronym of Islamic State in the Levant. Isil is the better translation of the group's Arabic name al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham – where 'Sham' represents greater Syria or 'the Levant' as we would say in English.

As for 'Daesh', it has the small propaganda advantage of reminding Arabic speakers of Daes ('one who crushes something underfoot') and Dahes ('one who sows discord'). But beyond that childish word association it is no help at all, for 'Daesh' is just the Arabic abbreviation of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham – or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

All the euphemisms politicians demand we must use to avoid calling Islamic State 'Islamic State' therefore call Islamic State 'Islamic State'. How can they not, for that is its name? And it is no more up to outsiders to change a group’s name than it is up to you to change the names of your acquaintances. Assuming the politicians know what they are doing, they must believe that many voters will not know what 'Isil' and 'Isis' stand for, or only Arabic speakers will understand the meaning of 'Daesh'. In other words, they are relying on ignorance and hoping to foster ignorance too.

Why the lies? Why the resort to the magical belief that you can change the world by changing language?

The overly cynical response that politicians lie all the time won't wash. They don't, and the pseudo-sophisticated belief of lazy cynics 'that they’re all the same' makes it easier for real liars to prosper.

The propaganda motive is, as the SNP says, to reassure hundreds of millions of Muslims that they are in no way implicated in Islamic State’s crimes, a sentiment so obvious it should not even need to be stated. But it provides reassurance by inventing a fairy story, which damages both Western governments and moderate Muslims when its falsehoods are exposed. To say that Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam is like saying Stalin’s Soviet Union had nothing to do with socialism, or the Inquisition had nothing to do with Catholicism. Islamic State has nothing to do with most varieties of Islam, just as Stalinism had nothing to do with most varieties of socialism, but Islamic State has everything to do with Salafist Sunni Islam, which has spread its ultra-puritan, ultra-reactionary literalist interpretation of the myths of early Islam across the world.

As the historian of the ancient world Tom Holland put it, when Islamic State fighters smash the statues of 'pagan' gods, they are following the example of the Prophet, who cleared the pagans from Mecca. When they proclaim themselves the shock troops of a would-be global empire, they are merely following the imperial pretensions of the early Islamic armies. When they execute prisoners of war, impose discriminatory taxes on Christians, and take the women of defeated opponents as slaves, they are doing nothing that the first Muslims did not do. As Holland neatly put it,

Such behaviour is certainly not synonymous with Islam; but if not Islamic, then it is hard to know what else it is.

Truth is meant to be the first casualty of war, but you are also meant to know your enemy. If David Cameron does not understand the truth about Islamic State’s Islamist ideology, if he has to make up stories, and order journalists to repeat lies so blatant a child could see through them, I cannot see how he can take part in a campaign against it. Certainly, I can see no grounds why the rest of us should play along with him. The Prime Minister may be demeaning his intelligence, but he has no right to demand that we demean ours.